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Days of Future Passed 

A look at Triangle homes of a future that never was

Somewhere in the back of our minds we all know that America does not look the way it should. The year is 2001. We ought to be lounging around in Mylar jumpsuits under glass bubbles, or living in saucer houses stuck atop towers like Seattle's Space Needle, or down in an underground city. Throughout the mid-20th century, the coming of the year 2000 meant the coming of the space age, the post-apocalypse or bust. Car designs may be slick and egg-shaped now but our houses certainly do not reflect the arrival of any futuristic future.

The most surprising thing about the less glamorous world we have made is that the other one, the futuristic future world that 2001 was supposed to be, is not at all impossible. You can buy a flying saucer house to sit above the tree line, but nobody does. Glass houses have been around for more than 50 years, but never caught on. Underground houses, too, are possible, but again, they are just a little too different.

So here we are, doing not too bad in our New England-style townhouses. We are alright if we have durable siding and fair to middling with the new, more efficient insulation. We are OK now that we installed that graduated dimmer switch. Who needs the future? But still, there were those who had the dream and who pursued it. And, if you keep your eyes open, you'll find quite a bit of future fever here in the Triangle.

Excursion Into Steel
Under the swaying shade of a towering magnolia, near the Chapel Hill Fire Department, Julie Bond-Meers lives in what is probably the only house in town that firemen will never get a call to save--it's made of steel. Innovations for homes of the modern era were not limited to design; new materials for construction were always being sought. So why not make a house made entirely of metal? That's the question the enterprising industrialist Carl Strundlond asked President Truman's Reconstruction Finance Committee (RFC) in the summer of 1946. Specifically, he wanted a little more than $15 million worth of emergency loans to build a bundle of the houses, ostensibly for GIs returning from the war effort.

Granted, Strundlond's pitch was a little half-baked. He was a manufacturer of porcelainized steel panels, not an architect. But his idea that metal neighborhoods could be largely prefabricated and swiftly plopped down on some recently razed hillside outside of Anywhere, U.S.A., offered enough of the promising traits politicians like to support--the creation of jobs (making steel) and affordable houses for our close-cropped boys coming home from the continent--that he was able to snare the President's commission into signing the loan a quarter of an hour before its emergency powers expired. Strundlond had designed a cute little cottage that exemplified what has affectionately come to be known as "the post-war" house.

To manufacture the 10 tons of steel that went into each two-bedroom Lustron, as they were known, Strundlond bought a 25-acre factory lot in Ohio, which had been used during the war to build fighter planes. The first home deployments were heralded by many as the future of the American house but some, particularly those in government, were quickly getting queasy as Strundlond went back to the federal trough for two more loans, totaling another $25 million. Five years and only about 3,000 Lustrons later, the company was repossessed by the body which had brought it into being, the RFC.

Whether or not you care to live in a house made of tiles that have the hollow, tinny sound of a toaster oven when you tap them, one in which you need magnets to hang pictures on the walls, is certainly a matter of taste. But the Lustron had some things to offer. It took only three days to put together. Its design is tight: the fast seams, solidity and evenness of Bond-Meers' Chapel Hill house remain half a century after construction. Lustrons hit the market at $7,000, which was highly competitive with comparably sized wood houses of the day. It is exceptionally fire resistant. All the doors but the front door are sliding doors, and the bedrooms have built-in dressers and drawers. Another Lustron signature is the radiant heater which hangs from ceiling trusses. The house has that gleam of the future, too. On a clear day after a quick simonizing, a guy could apply his Brylcreem while staring at his reflection in the wall. The failure of Lustron has been written off to weak distribution and poor planning, but the design was at the time and still is praised as both visionary and highly economical.

The Dome Home
It's hard to say what happens to property values when someone erects a geodesic dome on your block, but fortunately, some might say, the question comes up rarely. Most of the dome houses were built among the area's hills and trees in the early 1970s, when people were feeling a little funky. Dan Stern opted to buy one, a cedar shingled semi-dome built in 1973 out among the pines between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough. He enjoys the place as a project, customizing it to suit his ideas of how to live the country life in a house designed with intergalactic overtones.

He has added triangular windows around the base, below waist-level, to increase the flow of fresh air, and he is currently constructing a screened-in porch that causes him some headaches. "It can be tough to put an essentially rectangular porch onto a circular house," Stern says.

The two types of available dome homes have quite different looks. The three-eighths dome, which is what Stern owns, poses an awkward visual relationship with the surrounding forest, as the shape seems at once futuristic and primitive. He points out that it is an ancient architectural technique--utilized in the arctic igloo and the adobe hogans constructed by Native American tribes. The five-eighths dome, often referred to as the "golf ball," appears more modern in some ways, but both actually seem to exist outside of the tradition of Western architecture.

Stern's home is a testament to two of the attractions of the dome; it offers unparalleled temperature and light distribution. Stern, who works for the Arboretum at the University of North Carolina, has turned the interior of his dome into a small forest, with all manners of plants lining the curvature of his living room and suspended from the loft that is his bedroom. Because the windows in most dome houses are flush with the triangular wall panels, new guests are given to expect they are walking into a dark grotto. But there is no shortage of light, it just tends to be soft and well-disseminated.

That the dome house ever became identified as modern might actually bother its designer, the inventor, philosopher, humanist, poet, mathematician and designer R. Buckminster Fuller. He would say that the dome is a natural answer to the conundrum of human housing, one proposed organically by the behavior of physics and nature.

Fuller's epiphany of the domed home arrived on a cold day in Chicago in 1927. He had just lost a child and his business had gone sour. He stood on the windblown shores of Lake Michigan, contemplating suicide, when it struck to him that he might employ himself in the occupation of pulling humanity out from the dark ages in which, he was certain, it still lived. Fuller would spend much of the rest of his days in the business, as he was a capitalist, of pursuing visions of an enlightened and highly technical future. Why must cars have four wheels? Must houses be rectangular?

Not only was his answer "No," but he also enlisted his highly imaginative scientific mind in proposing alternatives such as the three-wheeled car and the dome house.

Although they never caught on the way Fuller anticipated, the dome home persists, on the fringes of the margins of residential design, and the form is utilized occasionally in special design projects. Although there are few dome-home makers and designers out there today, Raleigh design firm Synergetics, of which Fuller himself served as president during the 1950s, is the largest and most venerable. The word Synergetics was Fuller's: an attempt to express his ideas of the mathematics of nature. The company built the dome over the N.C. Museum of Life and Science in Durham, has designed numerous dome variations around the world for the U.S. military and for private companies, and designed the world-renowned Climatron at the Missouri State Botanical Gardens in St. Louis.

There are many features, enthusiasts say, that make the dome design unique. The one most often noted is the dome's tetrahedron skeleton: It's the only design scheme that becomes stronger as the size of the structure grows, and it is proclaimed the lightest and strongest building design, primarily because it uses tension to work in favor of the structure, not against it. Because of its lightness, no interior walls are needed to support the roof, leaving the space open to limitless possible floor plans.

Fitting in, too, with Fuller's humanitarian vision is the cost-effectiveness and energy conservation capacity for heating and cooling the dome. He was noted for saying that, even in the mechanical age, we get only about 5 percent return on the work we put into acquiring and using our resources. No doubt he was citing his own math but, regardless, Fuller found in his dome one way to combat some of that waste. The shape causes a convection current that moves heat around the house in the cooler months and, likewise, circulates cooler air in the summer.

Although proponents of the dome will ramble off a litany of techno-spiritual features that make dome living right for them, another more elusive quality is most salient. Call it the groove factor, call it the hipness quotient, call it what you want, there is a timeless, future-primitive chic to the geodesic that few houses offer. The dome concept appears to be erected on the improbable intersection of hippie culture and the space age. That dual identity may be one of the reasons Americans did not take to these things with anywhere near the zeal that Fuller put into promoting them--and why it took an era like the late '60s and '70s make them fashionable.

Growing within the foliage in Stern's house, a ping-pong table sits where a dinner table ought to be. Under a snaking aloe, he keeps an enormous library of old vinyl records and a late year solid-state style phonograph that looks weighty enough to sink a pontoon. The sensibility is imparted that, should civilization ever crumble, dome dwellers will keep their particular boogie intact out in the country--playing old records and playing ping-pong until a better world comes along.

The Modernist Years
Although Frank Lloyd Wright was designing modernist houses soon after the turn of the 20th century, it would not be until the Second World War that the movement gathered any steam. Just a few years before the United States began shelling Germany, Germany began assaulting the United States with a new breed of refugee architects. The revolutionary modernist Bauhaus school essentially picked itself up and moved to America with the arrival of its stern-looking dean, Walter Gropius, and his protege Mies van der Rohe. These were socialists who dreamed of the creation of the perfect worker housing--economical and sparse. (Loosely translated by critics, their vision meant concrete boxes, little privacy and very few unopenable windows.)

Unfortunately, their dream homes cost more than the European worker could afford, so they took government commissions to build vast, faceless buildings that drew as much perplexity as praise. As the shadow of the rising Third Reich grew over Europe, Gropius, van der Rohe and company moved to the United States, where they were free to be artsy socialists and make a killing at the same time.

As the money began streaming in, the dream took a detour from worker housing to corporate high-rises and white collar country estates. Boxes of glass, steel and concrete began falling on America before anyone knew what was happening.

How did the new "International Style" fit into the American palate? Were these houses habitable? Could you leave a pair of sweat socks on floor without destroying the aesthetic genius of the house?

Who cared? These guys were Europeans; they had had the art world in a headlock for centuries. We had cattle, coal and elbow grease. They had good taste. Modernism had found its legs and soon, in the 1950s, it began making its way out of Chicago and New York and headed south for Raleigh.

N.C. State University's School of Design brought into its fold a number of heavyweight architects, including the inventive Matthew Nowicke, who designed Dorton Arena and headed the school's architecture department. Fortunately, by the time the movement hit Raleigh, the boxes of the international style had given way to greater experimentation and included houses which were designed to accommodate people, instead of the other way around.

Much of the suburban growth of Raleigh in the 1950s was concentrated around what was then north and west of downtown, now south and east of the Crabtree Valley Mall. These neighborhoods run along rolling green trails and exhibit the sort of high culture and diversity that has long since been whacked down by planned developments. Nestled down in the contained undergrowth beneath the oaks and pines of these neighborhoods are a few houses of international renown, designed by some of the architects lured to the area by the prestigious design school.

One of these, which was sadly demolished earlier this year, was the home of Argentinean visionary and founding member of the School of Design, Eduardo Catalano. The startling design technique, strikingly similar to the stress absorption principle Nowicke used to hold Dorton Arena together, has allowed this house to go by many names. In some textbooks it is called the Raleigh House. In Raleigh it is called the Catalano house. Out west it is called the "potato chip house." To architectural students, the design is affectionately called the "Warped Shell," for its roof--which is technically known as a hyperbolic paraboloid.

Catalano did not live in the house long after its completion in 1954 before he moved to San Francisco, but the house remained occupied for a number of years afterward. It has been called the most important residential structure in North Carolina and was well-known for being one of the very few buildings Frank Lloyd Wright had anything nice to say about. Despite the importance of the house to the architectural world and noble efforts on the part of Preservation North Carolina--which searched for some time to find a buyer willing to fix up the deteriorating house--the structure was destroyed in March.

In the vein of the more subtle and perhaps more livable houses created by the Design School's faculty are the houses of George Matsumoto. A Japanese American, Matsumoto was raised in San Francisco, where he still lives, but was forced to relocate to St. Louis during the era of the Second World War's internment camps. After one year of private practice and another spent in Oklahoma, Matsumoto was whisked to N.C. State. Throughout the 1950s Matsumoto was an integral member of a rotating architectural dream team that included van der Rohe, Fuller, Lewis Mumford, Gropius, Catalano and Nowicke. During his Raleigh years, between 1948 and 1961, Matsumoto designed a few houses that still stand in Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

Although an American, Matsumoto drew on his Japanese inheritance for ideas in the foundation of his designs, particularly in regard to the notion that a home should fit into its natural surroundings. Although the flat-roofed houses he designed were innovative, they are subtle enough to be warm and they lack the ideological pretentiousness quickly becoming equated with other modern home designs. These were homes first, as Marion Aretakis, who has lived in a Matsumoto home for more than 40 years, will attest. The Aretakis family commissioned the home from Matsumoto, a family friend, in 1953 and raised two sons and three daughters there. With its relatively open floor plan, flat roof, and glass walls on the sides and rear the house bears all the evidence of the Bauhaus stamp. But by using wood plank walls Matsumoto allowed this, and his other houses, to shed the chilly, institutional feel associated with those high-minded designers. He allowed the house to have personality, to be a home. When Aretakis talks about her house she speaks with softness and warmth, in that intimately propriety way of a mother talking about her child.

Much of the difference between modernist home designs of the 1950s, like Matsumoto's, and those earlier ones by van der Rohe and Gropius had to do with the shifting subtext of the modernist platform. With the rise of NATO and the growing importance of a United Nations, internationalism was becoming a way of designing for a future based not on attempts to equalize the classes but on the pursuit of international harmony, democracy, humanism and freedom. How did modern architecture fit in? In a 1959 letter to the dean of the Duke University Law School, with whom Matsumoto was discussing designs for a new building, he says modern architecture must be "more than a bag of tricks." He sharply emphasizes designing for human needs, dignity, and taking into account what he called "our present way of life," by which, one could imply, he meant a way that is hopeful for the future. It seems fitting, then, that two of Aretakis's sons, raised in the Matsumoto house, have gone on to pursue housing as a profession: one is a developer, the other an architect.

EndBlock

  • A look at Triangle homes of a future that never was

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